Jew­ish young men wear­ing yarmulkes stand in front of a kiosk and hold up a news­pa­per with an arti­cle about Karl Adolf Eich­mann in 1964 Tel Aviv

Van de Poll pho­to collection

The first Holo­caust sur­vivor that I ever saw was a woman in Jerusalem. It was 1961, the year of Adolf Eichmann’s tri­al, and she was car­ry­ing a bag of veg­eta­bles as she crossed the street. The sun­shine seemed to illu­mi­nate the blue num­bers on her arm as she made her way across the road.

Back in New York City where I was from, I had nev­er seen a Holo­caust sur­vivor to my knowl­edge. Per­haps because they wore long sleeve blous­es and jack­ets instead of light­weight sum­mer shirts that were suit­ed to the warmer Jerusalem cli­mate. Or maybe they were deter­mined to keep their sto­ry a secret.

I had trav­eled to Israel with a dozen oth­er col­lege stu­dents on a fel­low­ship to study pol­i­tics, eco­nom­ics, and Hebrew. We were housed in the neigh­bor­hood of Rehavia, home to many Ger­man Jews who had man­aged to escape Hitler through their for­mi­da­ble resources – some were even able to send their baby grand pianos to their new homes in Israel. 

It was a very tense time. The radios were blast­ing news of the Eich­mann tri­al. Walk­ing along the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, one could hear the poignant tes­ti­monies of sur­vivors from loud­speak­ers mount­ed above some of the stores. The cafes along Ben Yehu­da Street were filled with Holo­caust sur­vivors, smok­ing cig­a­rette after cig­a­rette and drink­ing glass after glass of black cof­fee. They seemed to be lean­ing in toward each oth­er, whis­per­ing confidences.

I under­stood Hebrew and I admit to eaves­drop­ping on their con­ver­sa­tions. I heard how they had man­aged to escape their one room apart­ments in the ghet­tos, how they had sur­vived in the camps, and the miles of march­ing they endured with no food or water. Some spoke of dig­ging pits and graves for their own fam­i­ly mem­bers, their neigh­bors, their fel­low Jews. Oth­ers spoke of how they snuck off into the woods when the guard turned his head for a moment. Oth­ers talked about steal­ing a few pieces of dry bread and hid­ing them in the wall to pre­vent them­selves from starv­ing. Each sto­ry is deeply embed­ded in my mem­o­ry, and my eyes teared up as I lis­tened to them.

It was a very tense time. The radios were blast­ing news of the Eich­mann tri­al. Walk­ing along the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, one could hear the poignant tes­ti­monies of sur­vivors from loud­speak­ers mount­ed above some of the stores.

When I returned to Amer­i­ca after the fel­low­ship pro­gram, I want­ed to write about what I had heard and what I had seen but some­how I felt par­a­lyzed. There was too much pain to put into words, and as a young jour­nal­ist I was des­per­ate to get it right, to tell their sto­ries as truth­ful­ly as I had heard them. But I had tak­en no notes and every time I sat down to write, I could not tell their stories.

About ten years lat­er, a dis­tant cousin whom I had nev­er met sent me her mimeo­graphed mem­oir about hid­ing in the Lvov Ghet­to from 1941 to 1944. Her name was Rose Wag­n­er and her daugh­ter had helped her trans­late it to Eng­lish. It was 140 pages in length and at the back of the mem­oir was append­ed two pages list­ing the names of her fam­i­ly (on her moth­er and father’s sides) who per­ished in the Shoah. There were thir­ty-six names of mem­bers of my grandmother’s fam­i­ly on the list. Rose was the only survivor. 

I read the mem­oir sev­er­al times, it’s open­ing: April 1943. The world is on fire. The flame of World War II, ignit­ed on Sep­tem­ber 1, 1939, has tak­en on the dimen­sions of a gigan­tic blaze that is destroy­ing dai­ly thou­sands of human lives along with all their earth­ly pos­ses­sions.” And sev­er­al para­graphs lat­er, Rose wrote, I am not exact­ly famil­iar with the present con­di­tions in the oth­er coun­tries of Europe. How­ev­er, judg­ing by what is hap­pen­ing in Poland – in the larg­er cities like War­saw, Lvov, Krakov, as well as in the small towns — I am, unfor­tu­nate­ly, very well aware that wher­ev­er the Nazi forces have spread their bru­tal might, the fate of our peo­ple is doomed.”

Read­ing her mem­oir final­ly pushed me to write my nov­el which was inspired by so many of the sto­ries I heard whis­pered on the streets of Jerusalem–The Girl Who Count­ed Num­bers, set in 1961 Jerusalem dur­ing the Adolf Eich­mann tri­al. Rose’s mem­oir con­nect­ed me direct­ly and deeply to my rel­a­tives who per­ished in Auschwitz whom I nev­er knew. 

The words of the sur­vivors I’d heard in 1961 affect­ed me deeply and when I sat down to write my nov­el, pieces of their sto­ries poured out of me. 

All of these sto­ries of the Shoah will be remembered.

Roslyn Bern­stein has been a sto­ry­teller all her life, some­times work­ing for a true account in the nar­row sense as a jour­nal­ist when it’s report­ing or his­to­ry, and some­times in a wider, more res­o­nant sense when com­pos­ing poet­ry, short sto­ries, or a nov­el. As a jour­nal­ist, she has report­ed in-depth cul­tur­al sto­ries for venues includ­ing Guer­ni­ca, Tablet, Arter­ri­to­ry, and Huff­in­g­ton Post. Six­ty of her online pieces were reprint­ed in an anthol­o­gy, Engag­ing Art: Essays and Inter­views From Around the Globe. While report­ing on all forms of art and archi­tec­ture, doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy has been a major sub­ject of Bern­stein’s writ­ing and teach­ing since the 1970s.She is the author of a col­lec­tion of linked fic­tion­al tales, Board­walk Sto­ries, set in a sea­side com­mu­ni­ty dur­ing the 1950s, and the co-author with Shael Shapiro of Ille­gal Liv­ing: 80 Woost­er Street and the Evo­lu­tion of SoHo, which focus­es on one build­ing to tell the sto­ry of SoHo’s trans­for­ma­tion from a man­u­fac­tur­ing dis­trict to a live-work arts com­mu­ni­ty. For most of her career, she taught jour­nal­ism and cre­ative writ­ing at Baruch Col­lege, CUNY where she was the found­ing direc­tor of The Sid­ney Har­man Writer-in-Res­i­dence Pro­gram. The Girl Who Count­ed Num­bers was inspired by the sev­en months that Roslyn Bern­stein spent in Jerusalem in 1961. She has tried to be atten­tive to his­tor­i­cal details although the sto­ry of Susan Reich, her fam­i­ly, and friends is fictional.